Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Autism in Utah

The Salt Lake Tribune is running a series of articles on autism in Utah this week. My boys are of mixed genetic heritage--half Utahn/half Texan (it is a whole other country, after all)--but we don't know anything about the Texas genetic family tree. The CDC collected data in 14 different states over the past few years, and there were a few stats in the Utah data I found interesting. Utah's overall rate of autism is slightly higher than the average of the 14 sites (7.5 per 1,000 as opposed to 6.6 per 1,000). Nationally, the boy/girl autism ratio is somewhere around 3:1 or 3.5:1. In Utah, it is 6.5:1. The rate of autism in Utah among Caucasian children is 8 per 1,000 and 4.4 per 1,000 Hispanic children. The overall rate in the state is 20 times higher than it was in the mid-1980s.

The University of Utah medical school is doing some research into the genetics of autism, as are several other prominent institutions. Utah's overall autism rate isn't that much above the average to raise any questions, I wouldn't think. However, the boy/girl ratio is interesting. As with anything related to genetics in the Intermountain West, I have to wonder if any of this has anything to do with the genetic heritage of polygamy. It seems to me that a polygamist husband would have broadcast any odd genetics more widely than would a monogamist husband, and that those odd genetics would be passed down to far more people than in a monogamist society. The notion fascinates me. Part of the U. of U.'s genetic research may actually end up going in that direction; their website mentions having access to the LDS Church's genealogical records. It seems like it would be damn difficult to trace something as complex as autism back via genealogical records and diaries and such--particularly as mainstream Mormons abandoned polygamy by the early 20th Century--but it could be an interesting endeavor, nevertheless. It is known that a rare condition called fumarase deficiency is found mostly in the polygamist colony along the Arizona/Utah border, so it seems at least conceivable that whatever genetics are involved in autism, partiuclarly as it affects boys, were somehow passed along through polygamist families. The state's overall autism incidence, however, may suggest that polygamy has nothing to do with it. Moreover, my childrens' genetic predisposition to autism may have nothing to do with their polygamist ancestors--it could come totally from my Texan DNA for all I know. But I'm a lawyer, not a geneticist, so I could just be blowing smoke.


Ann said...

One of the things that I wonder about with the autism studies is that the range of autism spectrum disorders is quite broad. It seems odd to me that your sons, who have severe impairment from autism, can be classified with the same illness (and studied using the same methods) as high-functioning children with mild cases of Asperger's.

It's sort of like the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, where you only have to be 1/16th Mashantucket Pequot to qualify to be members of the tribe. Yes, Asperger's is a real thing, but it's so far removed from what you're dealing with that it's downright bizarre to consider it the same thing, and to study the two disorders that way.

I guess if the autism spectrum disorders turn out to have the same genetic basis, with the impact being variable based on other things, then looking for a genetic component is probably worthwhile. However, without identifying what causes the variation in disability, I don't see what good it'll do.

Children with mild cases of autism can have very full, normal lives. I think we short-change those who are more severely disabled when we paint the disorder with such a broad brush.

What do you think?

Randy said...

Good point, Ann, and, yeah, I would think that the appropriate therapeutic intervention (beyond the currently recommended interventions) would have to depend on whatever causes the variation in impacts.

I suspect that the researchers eventually will categorize numerous subtypes of autism, and it could be that there are slightly differing causes for each subtype. I suppose that some kids' disorders could have purely genetic causes, while others could have a combination of genetic and environmental causes (say a genetic predisposition triggered by an environmental insult--childhood vaccinations being the most frequently discussed such insult). Then there could be other combinations of factors giving rise to the subtypes. It seems to me that, at least, all kids on the spectrum have in common some causation factor(s). Once that is isolated, then the research could branch out into looking for causation of specific subtypes.